New York -- She's said to be a master of media manipulation, the sort of star who knows instinctively how to make reporters sit up, beg and roll over. So catching Madonna in a news conference ought to be like watching a virtuoso at work -- a combination of grace, style and supreme confidence.
Or so goes the theory. Real life, though, is a little different, and the Madonna who found herself facing a roomful of reporters in New York's Rhiga Royal hotel recently was hardly the cunning image-orchestrator we've heard so much about.
Although ostensibly there to field questions about "Body of Evidence," the sex-charged murder mystery she stars in with Willem Dafoe and Joe Mantegna, she was asked about everything from the status of her production company, Maverick, to her prospects for parenthood.
Far from playing the press like a violin, she spent much of her time trying to come up with unrevealing answers to awkwardly phrased questions.
Faced with a crowd whose most ardent desire was to get her to say something controversial, Madonna didn't so much control the situation as ride herd over the mob, often treating her inquisitors like unruly (and none-too-bright) schoolchildren.
And no wonder, given some of the questions asked. Madonna was quizzed about her music, her image, her interest in painter Frida Kahlo, her opinion on the Colorado boycott (she's for it), and whether she wants to find a man before having a child ("I'm looking for the chicken before the egg, no pun intended," she answered).
Mostly, though, what the press wanted was something juicy, quotable, scandalous. And reporters were willing to ask almost anything to get it.
For instance, there was the reporter who quoted "Body of Evidence" director Uli Edel as saying that the reason Madonna hasn't been taken seriously as an actress is that she made the wrong choices in movie roles.
Madonna tried to put Edel's statement into context, judiciously suggesting that she wanted "to have a chance to learn as much about movie-making as I have in music and performing . . . I've made mistakes in terms of choices in filmmaking, but I did it when I didn't know that much about movie-making."
Somehow, though, that wasn't enough. "What do you consider some of those mistakes?" pressed the reporter.
"I chose to do scripts that weren't that well written," answered the star, before realizing the true thrust of the question.
"Oh, you want me to name my mistakes?" Madonna asked.
"I'll leave that up to you."
But it was obvious that Madonna didn't want to leave anything up to these bozos. After eight years in the limelight, Madonna is nothing if not wary of the media and its machinations. And no wonder. After one reporter mentioned a recent McCall's story headlined, "How to Protect Your Children from Madonna," she all but sighed in exasperation.
"At this point, people write articles about me with those kind of sensational headline catch phrases, because it sells magazines," she said. "I think a lot of what people write about is uncalled-for and unfair. [But] I can't stop it, and I'm not going to try, so why bother addressing that issue?"
Why? Because sometimes the issue isn't Madonna but her work, and as much as she tries to maintain a thick-skinned demeanor while dealing with the personality press, it's clear that she bristles at the way the media's input colors public perceptions of her movies, albums and book.
Especially the book.
Even though "Sex" wasn't technically on the menu at the Rhiga Royal, it kept creeping into the questions. True, there were some obvious connections -- as with "Sex," the love action in "Body of Evidence" deals in taboo topics like bondage, dominance and sado-masochism -- and Madonna did admit that she had finished work on the movie before starting on her book.
But inquiring minds wanted to know if the Madonna of "Sex" and the Madonna of "Body of Evidence" came even close to appeasing the appetites of the Madonna who sat before them.
As one reporter put it, "Is there a limit to what you're prepared to do?"
"I define my limits in terms of being an artist," answered Madonna. "My limits are: Am I being true to myself? Is this what I want to say? Is this what I want to do?
"And if it's not, and I can't be proud of it, then I don't want to do it."
Brave as that sounds, Madonna does indeed worry about the way her work is received. She's of the opinion that the media's obsession with her morality -- or lack thereof -- is undermining the credibility of her artistic efforts.
"People who are threatened by the idea of someone being forthcoming about their sexuality will be swayed if they read articles written by writers who are also threatened by it," she said. "They're going to form [negative] opinions of me. And in a way it's unfortunate, because I found that a lot of people were judging the book before they even read it, before they looked at it, before they got anywhere near it.
"It would be nice if everybody could listen to my music and watch my movies and read my books without anyone telling them how they should think, or feel, or accept it, or not accept it."